Gay-rights supporters, opponents lobby state lawmakers -- again

March 16, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Supporters and opponents of gay rights came to Annapolis yesterday for what has become an annual debate in the General Assembly, one that offers supporters little hope of success.

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on bills calling for recognition of gay marriage, tolerance for homosexual students, and an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Even before the first speaker came to the witness table, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., committee chairman, told the crowd that legislators had heard the arguments before and were not interested in hearing people read from prepared notes.

"We do not intend to go on and on with the same testimony," he said. "We understand and we know what the bill is about."

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, who introduced the anti-discrimination bill, thanked the committee for its efforts last year in passing the bill.

"We're only here again to ask you to support your commitment from last year," said Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Even if the bill succeeds in the House again this year, it has virtually no chance of approval in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. That committee, the General Assembly's most conservative, killed the bill last year.

"I don't think there should be any question in your mind that gays are discriminated against," Alan Zukerberg, whose son is gay, told the committee. "We're looking for protections," he said, "because they need it."

Jim Rogers of Mission America, which opposes the legislation, said he has been fighting such bills for 15 years. "What part of `no' don't they understand?" asked Smith, who said he opposes "special" rights for anyone. "How long are we going to have to keep coming back?"

The Rev. Matthew J. Sine, pastor of Allentown Baptist Church, said he was concerned that gay-rights legislation appears to be making more inroads into society.

"I do think that ultimately it will cause a tremendous problem in the area of religious expression," said Sine, who has been coming to Annapolis for seven years to fight similar bills.

Several students spoke in support of the bill that would require the state school board to establish policies to protect homosexual youths from discrimination or harassment. Michael Cusmano, 16, said the harassment he endured drove him out of Loch Raven High School. He later found help at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Baltimore.

"Even though I quit school, I still want to make something of my life, no matter what anyone says about my sexuality," he said. "I think that if you vote for these [bills], it will help homosexuals feel good about themselves, and make them feel a whole lot safer.

Del. Emmett C. Burns, a Baltimore County Democrat, spoke against the school bill. "What this bill does is tear up the schools," he said. "It goes beyond acceptance. It's forcing an agenda on young people."

Though gay rights was a key element of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's agenda last year, this year the governor sent an aide to the hearing and issued a statement.

"It is time to recognize the contributions that gay men and lesbians make to the family of Maryland," the statement read. "These men and women must be allowed the same legal protections that everyone else takes for granted."

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